Mixed Ghirardelli chocolates, freshly made Turkish pide bread and a plate of curried potatoes cover the table of the warm, brightly lit room. Is this the UN? A classy fusion restaurant? Not quite. It’s the break room of the Samosaman factory in Winooski, which employees call their “home away from home.”
The portable stuffed and fried triangles known as samosas are more than a business for these workers — they’re a lifestyle: “We all work as a family,” says co-owner Fuad Ndibalema, the “Samosaman” himself. “Ask anyone here their last name and they’ll tell you it’s Samosaman.”
All that togetherness may sound a bit ... creepy. A Post-It on the break-room bulletin board urges employees to “HAVE FUN! Every day!” Samosaman staffers are so effusive about their jobs making meat- and veggie-filled pastries that one may wonder what happens behind the scenes. But a visit to the factory during production reveals nothing sinister. Instead, the people laugh and sing as they prepare spicy potatoes and fold wrappers, truly appearing to have fun.
Ndibalema, 38, his wife, Fatu Kankolongo, 30, and their two children arrived in Vermont in 2000. (A third child was born here.) The former cigarette-factory sales manager had left the Republic of the Congo not knowing what to expect. “They asked me at the American consulate if I had any friends or family in the U.S. I didn’t, so I said I just wanted somewhere secure,” recalls Ndibalema.
The family was sent to Barre. Kankolongo, a former city slicker, remembers her initial reaction: “There’s the picture of what America is, and we arrive and we’re not even in Burlington, but Barre … But we’ve gotten used to it and like it now,” she adds. “The shape of the mountains is like where my husband was born.” The newcomers weren’t as culturally isolated as one might expect — Ndibalema says there’s a Congolese community of several hundred in the area.
During the family’s first year in Vermont, Ndibalema worked as a trainee electrician. When he was let go, he decided he needed to take the entrepreneurial initiative to support his growing family. The couple had both been surprised to learn that American women work outside the home, but Kankolongo overcame her culture shock and devised a way to pitch in. Samosas, which appear in various permutations across Asia and Africa (and even in Portugal as chamuças) were a staple whenever she entertained. If party guests liked to grab them, why not busy shoppers?
With the help of the training program at Vermont Foodbank’s Community Kitchen and the Central Vermont Community Action Agency — the Barre version of Burlington’s CVOEO — the couple got their wares ready and started selling them to Montpelier’s Hunger Mountain Co-op in 2002. “Now we’re working together, and we’re equal partners. It’s a big change, but for good,” says Ndibalema of the partnership with his wife.
Soon Samosaman showed up at the Montpelier Farmers’ Market, its first of many. Ndibalema estimates that the company will have booths at five farmers markets this year; every summer, when fresh-air vending is in full swing, his kitchen staff of seven or eight balloons to 30 cooks, drivers and vendors.
The Samosaman plans to be even more prolific this season. The company will truck triangles to the Montréal International Merengue Festival; to the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Ct.; and even to Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn. When Ndibalema first signed on to supply the massive outdoor concert with snacks, he was told to expect 80,000. After Phish agreed to appear, organizers revised the estimate: Now, he’ll be prepared to feed 120,000. It will take a staff of at least 20 to handle the demands of ravenous Phishheads, Springsteen fans and Vermonters headed south to see Grace Potter.
Luckily, on the first day of 2009, Samosaman moved into chic new digs. The company’s Barre factory was a mere 700 square feet, says production manager Martha Avilas, a native of Honduras and a Vermonter since 2003. “It’s so nice to be able to make samosas here, and make samosas here and make samosas there,” she says, dancing around the open 5000-square-foot floor.
In the room’s center stands a starkly clean metal production table where, today, six women of all ages are folding potatoes into pastry dough. Huge fryers and vegetable cutters line the walls. Avilas says the giant cauldron of a steamer can hold 400 pounds of chicken. To make the chickpea and rice meals that Samosaman sells to markets and co-ops, they use a cooker that steams 20 pounds of the grain at a time.
“We do all the co-ops in Vermont and New Hampshire,” says Ndibalema. But very soon, it won’t be just health-conscious co-op customers buying Samosaman meals. The company is “just getting the paperwork done” to sell to Hannaford Supermarkets, says Ndibalema. Supplies will go to one large warehouse, so he doesn’t know whether his products will stay in Vermont or travel as far as Florida. But Ndibalema says an even larger chain with no stores in Vermont has expressed interest in carrying samosas and rice meals in the near future.
Besides the leap in size, Samosaman’s move to the Winooski factory had another objective. Located in the Hillside Park Complex, right off a commuter corridor, the building has space for a café. General Manager Terry Cleveland says the planned restaurant will give the company a way to retain its extra employees after the summer farmers market boom ends. This year fall, when the farmers markets have quieted, those staffers will supply and serve at the café, where Cleveland and Ndibalema envision serving samosas, rice dishes, coffee and “some new surprises.”
Ndibalema — who ends many an exchange with a hug and the words “Thank you, brother” — hopes to go national. Today, sharply dressed in pinstripes, he looks the part. “We want to provide people with the greatest food they can find,” he proclaims. “To not just Vermonters but everybody in the U.S. Maybe both grocery chains and cafés. It takes planning, consistency and action to get to that.”
“Local and natural” supplies are one of Samosaman’s selling points, but they can be difficult to obtain. The popular apple samosas — an upscale variation on those fried McDonald’s pies — disappeared from the menu for much of last year when fruit supplies dried up. Hardwick Beef is Samosaman’s primary provider of grass-fed flesh for his popular steak-and-cheese and steak-and-potato samosas, but Ndibalema has also contracted with Maple Wind Farm in Huntington to ensure a steady supply. Though his factory doesn’t manufacture the wrappers, Ndibalema demands they be made with Vermont’s King Arthur Flour.
This community-mindedness also expresses itself in acts of charity — Ndibalema sends imperfect pies to the Winooski Family Center every Tuesday. “We’ve got to help each other,” he says. Cleveland adds, “The people are so happy that they’re getting protein and not just baked goods and cookies.”
Samosaman also supplies Burlington public schools with breakfast on Wednesdays. Students snack on Kankolongo’s latest invention, the “Breakfast Samosa,” a steak-and-egg concoction that will soon debut at farmers markets. Kankolongo has expanded Samosaman’s offerings well beyond the spiced-potato and ground-beef-with-onions varieties that are standard in her homeland. Currently the company sells its meals-in-a-wrapper with nine fillings, ranging from a spring-roll-like mix of tofu, carrots and cabbage to a hearty blend of broccoli and Vermont cheddar. One day Ndibalema would like to offer 15 flavors, he says.
Giving a tour of the factory, Ndibalema points out the room where the meat inspector sets up shop on his visits. (The company is prepared: Four line workers have ServSafe certification, meaning they’ve passed a rigorous test on food safety.) “The inspector gets to be there if no one is praying,” says Ndibalema, smiling as he indicates the room’s other use. Muslim employees (Ndibalema and Kankolongo included) are allowed to step off the line twice a day to pray to Mecca; folks of other faiths can opt for prayer time, too. Employees include natives of Turkey, Somalia, Iraq, Russia and other countries. “We don’t disrespect each other’s religions here,” says Avilas.
With a staff that recalls the old Coke commercial (“I’d like to teach the world to sing...”), the factory offers numerous “teachable moments.” “I’m learning new words all the time!” exclaims Cleveland. “Everybody’s accepted; we’re just a family.” Team members take turns making noon meals that reflect their culture. The small stereo is surrounded by CDs — some with homemade labels reading “Turkish” and “Quran,” others American pop. “Sometimes we have Turkish or Congolese music. Sometimes Spanish,” says Avilas. “We have the confidence to tell each other, ‘I’m sick of this music, let’s change it.’ No one gets upset.”
The familial trappings extend throughout the building. Alongside the produce, the walk-in freezer contains juices and a tub of Smart Balance buttery spread that Avilas says is for “personal use.” In the next room, which holds shelves of garam masala and curry powder to season the samosas, a plastic bowl of cookies sits perched atop some recent Costco acquisitions. Avilas explains, “We live in here. This is our second home.”
The first employee to join Ndibalema and Kankolongo, Avilas is contagiously enthusiastic. “I’m very happy with them,” she says, excitement growing as she speaks. “I feel so good. No matter what and how, I would never leave. It’s so flexible. Everyone here is very understanding.”
Indeed, Samosaman still feels like a family endeavor. When she’s done talking business, the statuesque Kankolongo, wearing a fashionable color-block sundress, throws on a hairnet and antiseptic Crocs and joins the production line. Ndibalema credits that kind of dedication for the big success of his little pastries: “Everyone takes this as their personal thing; that’s why we’re everywhere.”